The word crisis comes from the ancient Greek word that means “turning point” deriving from the verb which means “to decide.” Crises come when we reach a breaking point, and we have to make a choice as to which path we will take. The current crisis we are in exposes the fundamental contradictions and limitations of our economic system, our health system, our care system, our political system, and our justice system. The dual and intersecting pandemics of Covid-19 and police violence are making increasingly more evident the realization that we cannot just return to the status quo we lived in before, a state in which so many of us were left vulnerable to the physical, economic, and psychological impacts of white supremacy. We must fundamentally change the systems that we have built.
The Movement for Black Lives’ unrelenting outcry for the sacredness of Black life in this crisis moment has cracked us open to so much more possibility to build a new world — a world without police but rich with community-based safety and accountability practices that honor the dignity of everyone. Building this world requires a kind of spiritual and moral courage that people of faith must embody at this time. Now is the moment when we must put forth our belief in the inherent holiness of every human being and act from that commitment.
This spiritual and moral courage is needed to #DefundPolice — not only literally defunding police budgets, but also “defunding” our own reliance on policing and incarceration. This includes examining how within congregations we maintain the logics of policing and punishment.
Simply put, policing is the enforcement of white supremacy, and the movement to abolish it has been around as long as people have been policed and punished.
But what is abolition? Critical Resistance, one of the key organizations doing abolition work in the US, talks about abolition like this:
“Abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.
From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC [prison industrial complex] both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives.”
The traditions of Judaism and Christianity have ancient grounding in abolition and “making our dreams real.” The sacred stories recognize that policing and incarceration are tools of political oppression and criminalization of “the other” and those who are considered threats to the colonizing empires. Jewish texts and Christian scriptures speak often of the liberation, release, and rescue of prisoners, an action attributed to Divine concern and justice. When the Divine goes about setting things right, according to the Divine’s vision for the well-being of creation, abolition is most often part of that vision. This tells us that incarceration, and the kind of policing of human bodies that leads to incarceration, are not part of the Divine’s vision for the flourishing of life. Rather, the prophetic calls are for investment in practices that nourish collective wellbeing: housing, access to healthcare, just food distribution, and accountability for harm that does not involve replicating imperial logics and practices.
What are some examples of abolition and building abolitionist futures in Jewish and Christian sacred texts?
- The liberation of Israelites from enslavement in Egypt is an act of abolition. Their enslavement included the “policing” of their labor (Exodus 1:11) and their reproduction (Exodus 1:15 on), with punishment occurring for not meeting labor quotas or for bearing children perceived as boys. So we should understand “the Exodus” as liberation not simply from a geographical location, but from oppressive systems that included what we would define as policing. We can also understand the time in the wilderness and the many instructions to the community in the rest of the Torah as un-learning the narrow ways of Egypt (empire), so they would not simply replicate Egypt in the new community they were building.
- The Psalms (yes, Psalms!) speak of liberation in many places. Two examples are Psalm 102:19–20 “From heaven [the Divine] looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die;” and Psalm 146:8 “[the Divine] sets the prisoners free.” (Both NRSV). A world in which prisoners go free implies that there are better forms of accountability for those who might have enacted harm, and that the Divine is committed to dismantling structures that police and criminalize those considered “other” and “threat.”
- In later chapters, the prophet Isaiah is writing in the aftermath of Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem and the people’s return from exile to begin to rebuild their community. Isaiah insists that this rebuilding must include the “liberation of prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1, JPS Tanakh), a call that is later reiterated by Jesus (Luke 4:18) in the midst of Roman violence that included mass crucifixion (state execution) and imprisonment of those considered threats to Rome, including Jesus and his community as well as other Jewish resistance movements of the time.
- Isaiah also stresses the importance of investing in collective well-being (ch. 58 is but one example): assuring all people have food, shelter, clothing, beauty, clear water, community, and care for their bodies.
- Jesus teaches on alternative accountability practices that avoid the Roman courts and prisons of his time (e.g. Matt 4), as does Paul (e.g. 1 Cor 6). The communities they were trying to build — including practices for collective well-being such as sharing food and housing, and democratizing access to care for bodies — are thus intended to counter the impacts and practices of Roman colonization.
- Generally (though with a few exceptions, such as the Canaanite/Syrophoenician women), Jesus does not police people’s bodies, abilities, ethnicity/nationality, ability to “pay” for food or care, or even beliefs. He teaches his community to do the same, with practices and theological grounding rooted deeply in his Jewish tradition. Note: We need to understand his work as being in opposition not to Judaism or even “the Pharisees,” but in opposition to Rome and the ways in which Rome controlled, surveilled, policed, and punished the Jewish people — and how narrow Roman ways got embedded into people and needed to be dismantled.
- We might even understand the apocalyptic triumphal vision of Revelation as an abolitionist vision: the final crushing of the Roman Empire and thus an end of the suffering they inflicted via policing, punishment, state violence, and imprisonment. “[The Divine] will wipe every tear from their eyes…mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:4) is the experience of an abolitionist future.
- As Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein notes, in Talmud Yerushalmi, Hagigah 1:7 (6a-b), 3rd Century Palestinian Jewish Rabbinic sages go on a nation-wide campaign to develop public education. When they encounter one body politic that has invested heavily in law enforcement and divested from public education and culture, they make a forceful case that it is universal education and culture that provides a community true protection.
None of this is to say that these efforts were perfect or without their limitations. The prophets have to repeatedly remind the people where they have fallen short of this vision. Jesus’s parables of the “kin-dom” have enslaved people in them. Paul has conflicting and harmful things to say about enslaved people in the communities he founded.
We also know that Jews and Christians and not the only ones with abolitionist theologies. Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, and others all have deep commitments to abolition resourced through their traditions.
What we can learn from all this, is that there is always more work to be done towards the Divine’s abolitionist future; we are always deepening our understanding of what it means to be free. The longing for communities that are safe from harm, where everyone has all they need to be nourished and to thrive, is a Divine longing, a divine longing for us as humans (and all creatures/creation). At their best, the sacred stories communicate that divine longing and the Divine’s willingness to act towards the fulfillment of that longing, including the abolition of oppressive systems and structures.
Abolition is sacred, divine work. This sacred work has already accelerated under this crisis of intersecting pandemics. COVID-19 is revealing how many people don’t need to be behind bars after all. Thousands of people are being released from jails, prisons, and detention centers because of the extraordinarily high risks faced by people in these institutions. Jails and prisons are reducing admissions. Parole and probation agencies are reducing incarceration and unnecessary face-to-face contact for people on parole and probation.
The uprisings for Black life in the summer of 2020 have also led to abolitionist wins across the country. City councils are cutting police budgets (or least refusing to increase budgets), such as in Philadelphia and Los Angeles; cities are eliminating police departments all together, such as in Minneapolis (see also this article); school districts are voting to remove police, such as in San Francisco, Denver, Portland, Oakland, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles; and police departments are being ordered not to respond to “non-criminal” activities such as neighbor disputes, such as in San Francisco.
There is much more that needs to be done, and all of these wins show we have the winds of change at our backs. People of faith are positioned in this moment with a moral imperative to push for both the immediate needs of people most impacted to be met (#DefundPolice), and also to push our own transformative long-term demands for an abolitionist future (Invest in Communities). This includes doing the transformative work within our own congregations and spiritual communities to stop calling police and build alternatives that invest in collective well-being.
SURJ-Faith has developed a robust toolkit for congregations who are ready to stop calling police and build alternatives for community care and safety. Sign up to get the “Community Safety for All: #DefundPolice Congregational Action Toolkit” here!
And register now for our webinar to hear from SURJ-Faith and key faith leaders about the imperative for congregations to stop calling police and invest in alternatives that build truly safer, more just, and more compassionate communities!